In modern politics, if you’re not on the attack, then you’re a target, and nobody appreciates that – or practices it – better than Sarah Palin. In the week leading up to this past Saturday’s airing of the HBO movie Game Change, Palin, as well as her supporters and surrogates, launched a salvo decrying the film as a hatchet job on the former Alaska governor based on spurious information given by vindictive former staffers. Of course, if Palin and Co. had watched the film they would have understood better that Game Change does the impossible: it makes her relatable to people that could never in a million years get behind Palin’s politics.
If you want to watch a good double bill, watch Game Change with Oliver Stone’s W, they’re both films about reviled politicians made three-dimensional and human. Neither George W. Bush nor Sarah Palin are the arch-villain, but rather victims of their times and their spin. Under different circumstances, with their piety and simplicity of thought they’d be practically quaint and harmless. But as we face difficult and complex issues in these early years of the 21st century, issues that require robust thought and engagement, both Bush and Palin find themselves in over their heads at times.
Game Change is based on the book of the same name by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. It is more or less the decisive tome covering all aspects of the 2008 U.S. Presidential election. For the purposes of the film, the story is limited to the campaign of Republican Senator John McCain, the selection of Palin as his running mate, and the impact she had on not just the election, but U.S. politics on the whole.
The key is the performance by Julianne Moore as Palin. This is no mere caricature, and to prove it, director Jay Roach inserts a lot of clips of Tina Fey’s Emmy Award-winning interpretation of the part on Saturday Night Live. There’s something surprisingly genuine in Moore’s Palin, and I was able to separate the political disdain I have for the former governor’s policies and appreciate her as a person, well-rounded yet flawed.
Palin starts out so strong and determined, but after her initial glow, and the growing frenzy by the national press, including her disastrous, some would say, interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric, she falls into a seemingly paralyzing self-doubt. It’s hard not to feel for her in those circumstances because her previous political experience and natural charisma seemed to weigh nothing against her ill-preparedness for national politics.
Her surprisingly effective performance against Joe Biden in the Vice-Presidential debate prompts a quick turn-around in her outlook, and this is where the Palin character takes a sharp turn from sympathetic to pompous. This was the point where the economic collapse was in full reside and McCain progressively looked weaker as he seemed overwhelmed by events, including fishing the idea that the entire presidential campaign should be suspended in the wake of the crisis. Remember, this is the point that Palin “goes rogue” and seems to run her own counter campaign as if she’s not lesser half of a ticket, but rather the whole ticket. But here, in the film, you know where that self-aggrandizement comes from: overcompensation for her earlier self-paralysis.
In the end though, Palin’s only part of the story. A tremendous ensemble plays various campaigners and operatives, including Woody Harrelson as senior McCain campaign strategist Steve Schmidt. There’s a touch of Dr. Frankenstein in the way Harrelson plays Schmidt; he knows he’s created a monster (so to speak), but realizes it too late to stop it.
Sarah Paulson should also get a special mention as former Bush White House communications director Nicolle Wallace, who many claim is the anonymous source that coined the phrase “going rogue” in relation to Palin. Wallace may be the most sympathetic “character” in the piece, an earnest politico trying to help her party win the election. Her determination is driven to the nub by Palin’s lack of focus and preoccupation with (small time) Alaska politics. In her final scene, Wallace comes to Schmidt heartbroken and shattered on Election Night saying that she just couldn’t bring herself to vote. Ouch.
The film ends with one of the worst political predictions of our time. Schmidt asks colleague Rick Davis (played by Peter McNicol) if he still thinks Palin is fit for office. “Aw, who cares,” he replies. “In forty-eight hours no one will even remember who she is.”
If there’s a reason that any lingering sympathy for Palin as portrayed by Julianne Moore – who will surely win an Emmy for the performance this fall – evaporates as soon as the credits roll, it’s because “Sarah Barracuda” is still living off the high of beating expectations on that debate night nearly four years ago. Like Aykroyd and Belushi in The Blues Brothers, she believes she’s on mission from God, and refuses to listen to people that test the assumption of her own greatness, least of all HBO and the filmmakers of Game Change.
You may remember late last year when Palin announced that she would not be running for the Republican presidential nomination saying that they can work together to “bring this country back,” adding, “I’ve always said, one doesn’t need a title to help do it.” That implies that the Presidency, like the British monarchy, is a ceremonial role with no power to truly affect people. Of course, that doesn’t stop Palin from criticizing Barack Obama for all the things he’s doing or not doing with his titled position, or from availing herself of the benefits of campaigning, like challenging the incumbent president to a debate. "I’m willing and free to discuss these issues with the President anywhere, anytime," she said on Facebook this week after the Obama campaign used video of her in a fundraising video.
There’s an argument in Game Change that the process transforms you. The McCain campaign began with a powerful message of country first with an accomplished statesman and war hero leading the way, but a historic Democratic ticket forced campaigners to find a way to be history making too. Enter Sarah Palin, she of the home-spun wit and Christian piety. A hometown sports hero and beauty queen with a remarkable gift for making a personal connection to her audience. She had an 80 per cent favourable rating as Governor of Alaska, but in the last couple of years, she can barely break 40 per cent favourability amongst members of her own party.
In the end, as the film points out, Palin has no one to blame but herself. Not that she was watching anyway.